The Spider’s Thread

Every morning in the Zen Center, the very first thing we do before starting 108 bows, is to recite the Four Great Vows. The first vow is “Sentient beings are numberless, we vow to save them all.” Our practice is not for us, not for “me.” It’s for all beings.

Sometimes people ask: “What is this point about ‘…we vow to save them all’. Is that really possible, or necessary?” And the answer that I give is that this vow is not something we measure or estimate or analyze in terms of possible/not possible. This vow is aspirational, a compass just to clarify and reinforce the direction of our practice so strongly, that we should also have the mind to help even those beings who are trapped in the deepest hell of mental suffering. “We vow to save them all.” This is the soul of the Mahayana way, and it is the soul of Mahayana’s radical, wayward child, Zen meditation.

Yes, it is true that we do not “save” others. This speech is just an expedient means, a toy to train us, a medicine for our minds, mere training wheels on the vehicle of our practice. As the Buddha dialogues with his student, Subhuti, in the Diamond Sutra:

Subhūti, what do you think? You should not claim that the Tathāgata [Buddha] thinks ‘I will save sentient beings.’ Subhūti, do not think such a thing. Why? There are in fact no sentient beings for the Tathāgata to save. If there were sentient beings for the Tathāgata to save, it would mean that the Tathāgata holds the notions of self, person, sentient being, and life span.

Subhūti, when the Tathāgata says ‘I,’ there is actually no ‘ I.’ Yet common people take this to be an I. Subhūti, as far as common people are concerned, the Tathāgata says that they are not common people.

Chapter 25

So, doing this vow (any and all of these vows) every day is not some claim or goal or even belief: It is all about creating unshakeable direction for our practice, for our lives, no matter what the condition or situation.

There is a powerful teaching-story about the importance of other-oriented practice. It concerns the Buddha and a person named Kandata with very heavy karma who is lost in the deepest Hell. This is an excellent story — very simple and clear. And because its content is not “religious” in nature (not specifically “buddhist”), but ethical, moral, I know that some people in Asia read it to their children, in the manner of Aesop’s fables, as a guide for setting one’s ethical compass for how we live our lives — with direction to help others.

Here is an excellent translation of the original story, by one of Japan’s greatest short story writers, Ryuunosuke Akutagawa (1892-1927). He is regarded as one of the greatest writers in the Japanese language, often known as “the father of the Japanese short story” (two of his stories were made into Rashomon, the classic 1950 film by Akira Kurosawa).

Vivian Yumemi Lee © 2010

The Spider’s Thread

It was a normal day in Heaven. It was morning, and Buddha was standing beside a pool. In the pool there were many flowers. The flowers sat on the top of the water, and they were very beautiful. Buddha began to walk. He walked around the pool and looked at the flowers. The flowers had a beautiful smell. The smell grew inside the flowers and moved into the air. All the air around Buddha smelled amazing.

Buddha stopped walking, and looked hard at the pool. Between the flowers there was water, and under the water, there was Hell.

The water was like a piece of glass. Above, there was Heaven, beautiful and lovely. Below, there was Hell, ugly and horrible. The water stood between the two places.

Through the water, Buddha could see all the horrible things in Hell.

First, there was the Sanzu river. It was a river full of dragons, and it had a bridge going over it. Only good people could walk across the bridge. There were demons standing in the water, and if a bad person walked across the bridge, the demons would take them and throw them into the water, so that they would be eaten by the dragons.

Then, there was the Mountain of Needles. It was a huge mountain made of sharp needles. When a truly bad person came to Hell, they had to climb the Mountain of Needles.

There was also the Lake of Blood. The Lake was made of very, very hot water, and it smelled horrible. Bad people in Hell had to swim in the boiling water, and their blood filled the Lake. And of course, there were many other horrible things in Hell, but Buddha did not like to look at them.

Among the groups of bad people in Hell, there was one man called Kandata. Kandata had been a very evil man. He had killed people, stolen from people, and even burned houses with people in them. He was truly an enemy of all good people. But once in his life, he had done something good, and Buddha remembered this.

One time, Kandata was walking through a thick forest. He was going to steal from a man who lived in the forest. As he was walking, he saw a spider beside him. Kandata raised his foot, and was about to stand on the spider and kill it, but then he stopped.

‘No, no. Even something this small has a reason to live. It would be truly evil to take its life away.’

So he let the spider live, and went to steal from the man.

As Buddha looked down into Hell, he thought of how Kandata had saved the spider. He decided that Kandata was actually not that evil. Because he had saved the spider, Buddha thought he should give Kandata a chance to leave Hell.

Luckily, next to the pool of beautiful flowers, a spider was walking. It was a spider of Heaven. It was an amazing green colour, and it was making a beautiful gold thread. Usually, spiders only made weak, white threads, but this spider’s golden thread was strong and made of shining gold. So Buddha took the spider’s golden thread and dropped it into Hell deep below him.

At the bottom of Hell, Kandata was swimming in the Lake of Blood, along with many other bad people. Occasionally, he saw something bright, and he thought it was something that could save him. But when he looked harder, he saw that it was just the needles on the Mountain of Needles, shining in the light. All around him, people cried in pain and sadness. Kandata had stopped crying, because he was too tired. He felt truly awful, because he knew he would never leave Hell. He swam in the Lake of Blood, quiet and sad.

Kandata saw something shine, but he knew it was only a needle, so he did not look up. But it kept shining, so eventually he raised his head. Above him, in the darkness of Hell’s sky, there was something bright and gold. It was a long thread that was slowly coming down into Hell.
Kandata couldn’t believe his eyes. His chance to leave Hell was coming down to him like a present. He would climb onto the thread, and climb out of Hell! If he was lucky, he might even be able to climb into Heaven. He no longer had to swim in the Lake of Blood, and climb the Mountain of Needles. He would be free!

So Kandata climbed out of the Lake and ran to the golden thread. He took it in his hands. The thread was thin, and easy to hold onto. Kandata climbed up and up and up. Because he used to steal so much, he was very good at climbing, so it was no problem to climb up the golden thread. However, between Heaven and Hell were thousands and thousands of miles, so even for a great climber like Kandata, it was a difficult journey.

After climbing for a long time, Kandata was tired, so he decided to take a break. He looked below him to see how far he had climbed. He saw that the Lake of Blood was far, far away, and that he had climbed many miles. Even the Mountain of Needles was far below him. If he kept climbing, he would leave Hell. He felt a great happiness inside of him.

‘I’ve done it! I’ve done it!’ he shouted, and laughed.

But then he felt something below him on the thread. He looked down, and saw that lots of other bad people in Hell had seen the thread. They were now following him, climbing up and up and up.

Kandata saw this, and he was surprised, and sad. He hung there, looking down at the other evil people. The thread was not thick, so he was surprised that it could take so many people without breaking. But if too many people climbed onto the thread, it might break, and they would all fall back down into Hell. More and more people climbed out of the Lake of Blood, and started climbing up the thread.

Kandata shouted at the people below, ‘Hey, you terrible people! You awful people down there! This spider’s thread is mine. It belongs to me, and only me! Who told you you could all climb up? Get off, get off!’
Then, suddenly, the spider’s thread broke. It made a SNAP, and Kandata fell. He fell down and down and down. Finally, he landed in the Lake of Blood with a SPLASH, along with all the other bad people. The spider’s thread hung in the air, shining bright like the needles on the Mountain of Needles, while all the bad people sat below.

Buddha stood by the side of the pool in Heaven, and watched all of this happen. He had a sad expression on his face. He started to walk around the pool again. He had given Kandata a chance to get out of Hell, but Kandata showed that he was a truly bad person, and so Buddha could not prevent him from falling back to Hell. Buddha seemed very sad at this.

Meanwhile, the flowers in the pool continued to smell lovely. They continued to make their beautiful smell all throughout Heaven, and they did not think of Kandata. The green spider continued to make its golden thread, and it did not think of Kandata. It was a normal day in Heaven, and soon it would be noon.

quoted from https://easystoriesinenglish.com/spider/

Sadly, the author of this excellent story, Ryuunosuke Akutagawa, was the son of a woman who suffered from very serious mental illnesses. It had a profound effect on him. He constantly agonized over the fear that he might eventually inherit these problems from his mother. As it turns out, though he climbed the thin thread of his art to great heights, the accumulated weight of this affliction snapped the thread before he could pull himself up to Paradise. Overcome with years of visual hallucinations and fear that he could not escape inheriting his mother’s condition, and as a result always feeling a “vague insecurity about the future” (his words), he killed himself at age 35. Japan’s most prestigious literary award, the Akutagawa Prize, is named after him.

So, like the Kandata of the story, the author himself faced the strong force of karma, or “mind habits.” I wonder if he had the technology of meditation practice, what he could have done to free himself, at least somewhat, from this Hell. If we practice, with consistency and courage, we can melt through these strong “mind habits” to begin to taste freedom from the created force of our delusive mental tendencies (i.e., karma). Finding the Dharma is important. Having a clear practice-technology is important. Having a clear Teacher is also important, and it is also extremely important to connect with a Sangha which practices regularly (even if not often) together.

But having direction is key: As Dae Soen Sa Nim always emphasized, “Having clear direction is very important. Why do you eat every day? Only for you? Only for your mouth, for your body? Even animals only live like that — their eating is only for themselves. Why living in this world? Why practicing? Only for you? Or for all beings? Having a clear direction is very important for your life.”

And his words are not just some spiritual wishfulness or ethics: The effects of helping others — being “other-centered” — are also grounded in empirical research. This is common knowledge in psychotherapy and the medical sciences.

Stephen G. Post, PhD, is a highly-regarded professor of preventive medicine and the director and founder of the Center for Medical Humanities, Compassionate Care and Bioethics at Stony Brook University. He is widely known for his research and public speaking on the ways in which giving can enhance the health and happiness of the giver, how empathy and compassionate care contribute to patient outcomes, ethical issues in caring for people with dementia, medical professionalism and the virtues, and positive psychology in relation to health and well-being. (Wikipedia)

Post emphasizes that helping others — volunteering, aiding those in need, even simple acts of charity among friends — is just as important to maintaining health as avoiding alcohol, tobacco and obesity. In his bestselling book, Why Good Things Happen to Good People: How to Live a Longer, Healthier, Happier Life by the Simple Act of Giving, he writes, “The startling findings from our many studies demonstrate that if you engage in helping activities as a teen, you will still be reaping health benefits 60 or 70 years later. Generous behavior is closely associated with reduced risk of illness and mortality and lower rates of depression.” 

The benefits of altruism are even hyped on websites for health care plans, like this one: “In one 2006 study, neuroscientist Jorge Moll and his colleagues at the National Institutes of Health found that when people give to charities, it activates regions of the brain associated with pleasure and trust, creating a ‘warm glow’ effect – that fuzzy feeling.” 

“Further evidence of the positive effects of volunteerism was found in a study from Carnegie Mellon University, published in 2013 in Psychology and Aging. Researchers discovered that adults over age 50 who volunteered on a regular basis were less likely to develop high blood pressure than non-volunteers.”

“But adults aren’t the only ones to benefit from volunteering. Researchers have found that adolescents who give their time to help others also benefit by developing a sense of purpose and a healthy connection to their community.”

(https://healthplans.providence.org/fittogether/find-your-fit/emotional-well-being/self-care-caring-for-others/good-giving/)

Having the GPS of the Four Great Vows is essential for that. It is the golden Spider’s Thread that we can all use together to climb out of the Ocean of Suffering. Most folks we know wish one day to get out of this vast suffering condition. But what “The Spider’s Thread” shows is that it is important to bring others along with us, to share with others the effort, to give to others even as we climb our way to liberation. Dr. Post points directly to those remaining in the Pool of Blood when he says, “We can be anywhere, so long as we are helping others and caring for them. This is probably the one source of stability in our lives that we can truly depend on, and so in the end we are never really out of place.”

Correct direction, indeed. Too bad Kandata could not get that email.

(Here is an excellent short video treatment of the “The Spider’s Thread,” done by a young American artist.)

Momento Mori

The three worlds are fleeting like autumn clouds. Like a staged performance, beings come and go. In tumultuous waves, rushing by, like rapids over a cliff. Like lightning, wanderers in samsara burst into existence, and are gone in a flash. — Lalitavistara Sūtra

Lots of thoughts about death these days: the slow-motion/fast-motion death of the climate I once new, the everyday-deaths of numberless migrants swallowed in the seas between Africa and Europe (and the countless more to come), the death in the last 10 years of so many monks and nuns I have practiced with. My own body falls apart in bits and pieces. Nothing serious yet, just the intimation of the inevitable slow cascade I witnessed in the older Sunim’s: in a torn-meniscus knee which will never permit me to do 108 bows ever again, or sit without a cushioning brace (and a second knee showing first signs of the same), the dwindling of eyesight in one eye, and now every intensive retreat sending blood streaming out of an ass which has cushioned far far too many thousands of hours of immobile sitting). My Father’s passing is not yet two years, and Mom’s is just over four: both genetic roots recently severed. No turning back.

Dae Soen Sa Nim’s “Temple Rules” end with an old poem, “In the great work of Life and Death, time will not wait for you. If you die tomorrow, what kind of body will you get? Is not all of this of great importance? Hurry up! Hurry up!” These lines first impacted me from the first days practicing in his lineage.

Some of Dogen Zen-ji’s first and most impactful writings urged us to consider the matter of impermanence as inspiration for why we must practice:

“Impermanence is swift; life-and-death is a matter of utmost urgency. For the short while you are alive, if you wish to study or practice some activity, just practice the Buddha-Way and study the buddha-dharma. Since literature and poetry are useless, you should give them up. Even when you study the buddha-dharma and practice the Buddha-Way, do not study extensively. Needless to say, refrain from learning the Exoteric and Esoteric scriptures of the teaching-schools. Do not be fond of learning on a large scale, even the sayings of the buddhas and patriarchs. It is difficult for us untalented and inferior people to concentrate on and complete even one thing. It is no good at all to do many things at the same time and lose steadiness of mind.” (Shobogenzo Zuimonki, Book 1)

To maintain this inspiration, the Buddha’s students practiced meditation on cremation grounds. In the Christian tradition, monks practiced in cold caves with skulls and withered bones to remind them of the impermanence of this bodily life, and the fast approach of physical annihilation in death.

The Lalitavistara Sūtra says,

अध्रुवं त्रिभवं शरदभ्रनिभं नटरङ्गसमा जगिर् ऊर्मिच्युती। गिरिनद्यसमं लघुशीघ्रजवं व्रजतायु जगे यथ विद्यु नभे॥ The three worlds are fleeting like autumn clouds. Like a staged performance, beings come and go. In tumultuous waves, rushing by, like rapids over a cliff. Like lightning, wanderers in samsara burst into existence, and are gone in a flash.

ज्वलितं त्रिभवं जरव्याधिदुखैः मरणाग्निप्रदीप्तमनाथमिदम्। भवनि शरणे सद मूढ जगत् भ्रमती भ्रमरो यथ कुम्भगतो॥ Sentient beings are ablaze with the sufferings of sickness and old age, And with no defense against the conflagration of Death. The bewildered, seeking refuge in worldly existence, Spin round and round, like bees trapped in a jar.

Philippe de Champaigne, “Vanitas” (1671): there is only life, death, and time.

The bust of Socrates watches over our practice, as well, for wasn’t it he who said (in the Phaedo), “Other people are likely not to be aware that those who pursue philosophy aright study nothing but dying and being dead. Now if this is true, it would be absurd to be eager for nothing but this all their lives, and then to be troubled when that came for which they had all along been eagerly practicing.” When Socrates says “philosophy” here, he means — for us — practice. “Those who practice correctly study nothing but dying and being dead.” Or, as Dae Soen Sa Nim used to say, “You’re already dead.”

So, whether Greek, Buddhist, or Christian, the admonition is clear: We must always strive to do correct practice, in this short span of life given to us, almost as if by lucky chance.

Hard to do that in a prosperous Bavarian city, wafting with the scents of finely-gebraten meats, finely roasted gourmet coffee, and delicious beers. The childhood aroma of my own long-dead German grandmother’s home-cooked old-country meals sometimes blooms to fill our Dharma Room when the Regensburg Weißbräuhaus serves up lunches in the summer sun, just two doors down. The sound of glasses raised is heard during our meditation. There is the even purr of finely-tuned German engines slowly turning the corner on our narrow “Gasse.” Life is good. Things will go on like this, it seems.

So, a little redesign of our altar has appeared, to keep Dogen’s admonitions nearer at hand: in the Christian tradition in which I was raised, it’s momento mori.

“In the great work of life and death, time will not wait for you…”

This reminder is not a depressing symbolism, but one which urges me on with greater seriousness in practice. It reminds me of the preciousness of this opportunity to wake up, to make utterly stable this attainment of True Nature, for the good of others. I am reminded of these extraordinary words by the great Richard Dawkins, one of my greatest intellectual heroes:

“We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones. Most people are never going to die because they are never going to be born. The potential people who could have been here in my place but who will in fact never see the light of day outnumber the sand grains of Arabia. Certainly those unborn ghosts include greater poets than Keats, scientists greater than Newton. We know this because the set of possible people allowed by our DNA so massively exceeds the set of actual people. In the teeth of these stupefying odds it is you and I, in our ordinariness, that are here. We privileged few, who won the lottery of birth against all odds, how dare we whine at our inevitable return to that prior state from which the vast majority have never stirred?”

― Richard Dawkins, Unweaving the Rainbow: Science, Delusion and the Appetite for Wonder

So, rather than despair, there is a greater joy in this, in the face of inescapable death, to practice awakening. So burdened with this receiving this life, how fortunate I have been to have encountered these teachings of self-liberation through practice, to trash mere religion for the sake of finding something better than mere “God” in the wind through the trees, the sound of a bird, a set of footsteps passing on the cobblestones outside the Dharma Room window, a fragrant tree walked past on the street. I have been burdened with “life,” since it has set up the incoming experience of annihilation of death, an experience I can imagine coming toward me: Yet, how inexpressibly lucky I am to encounter the practice of “moment-world,” this infinite expanse of now.

The Romanian existentialist Emile Cioran once said, “How good would it be if one could die by throwing oneself into an infinite void.” (On the Heights of Despair) Don’t know, don’t know, don’t know — again and again and again, as far as the inner eye can see, and further still in boundless awareness. There is no sweeter “death” than this.

Retreat Posting

By training and temperament, I never access social media for personal matters during intensive retreat — Kyol Che or otherwise. (The only exceptions are for Zen Center admin-related official posts directed toward promotion.) That means, especially, that I do not engage the practice of “liking” or commenting on all the endless social media diarrhea out there during these periods of hard training. This is not to seem “virtuous” or pure; it just feels unseemly for people in meditative retreat to behave “socially” online, like having a cigarette while playing tennis. I know some monks who are very avid social media types, even during silent retreat, and I could never understand that: Even the thought of touching even the smallest part of all that super-superficiality seems so incompatible with the everything the ancients told us about the attitude and focus of the Way-seeking mind. Again, I’m the last person who should try to seem somehow “better” than other fellow practitioners. I just don’t think that anyone who is truly serious about their practice can be engaged with Facebook commenting and “sharing” and “liking” while also making efforts in the work of looking into “don’t know.”

And I am absolutely certain that my Teacher, Dae Soen Sa Nim, would have never, ever allowed that to happen in our retreats, had he lived into the Facebook age. (Died in 2004.) In Mu Sang Sah Temple, in Korea, my older brother, Dae Bong Sunim, forbids retreatants from any Facebook/Instagram-type social media connection during retreat. The temple even asks you to hand in your smartphone when you begin the retreat! Dae Bong Sunim told me recently that people who are compulsively posting, commenting, or “liking” on FB during retreat, no matter their monks’ age, were just killing time, and not looking into themselves at all. I have exactly the same feeling.

This year, after some 27 years of these intensive retreats, but especially since carrying a teaching role which extends beyond the confines of just this retreat-place, I am trying something new, as an experiment: In the time since this baby-blog has appeared two months ago, mostly as a way to have a teaching “home” which is not reliant on social media communication — in other words, it has appeared in order to become free from Facebook as the only means of reaching people — we are having our first Kyol Che retreat. And I have decided to continue to post things here that might have some meaningful content for my students and their practice. After all, the very reason for this blog is to be able to offer “a digital finger pointing at the moon” (as I named the original Tumblr page), away from cat videos and noisy politics and opinions of social media. That pointing is merely a kind of cheap-form Dharma talk, for those at a distance, to augment the (already few and far between) talks I give here in the Zen Center during practice. (And, anyway, is a blog social media, anyway?)

So, while this blog is technically not “social media” in the classic sense of the word, it will be linked to our ZCR Facebook account, so, things that get written here might (and might not, in some cases) get linked there, in order to reach anyone who has expressed interest in my work through the conventional FB outlet. I am going to work hard for this not to become a “substitute” for social media, but rather to be a more “curated” experience than I have heretofore had available for digital teaching.

And yet there is profound discomfort with this “experiment.” But there might be no other way: You see, I have this extraordinary compulsion to spread the technologies of my Teacher, Dae Soen Sa Nim, every day of this short life. I have felt this compulsion since literally weeks after first encountering his practice in the Cambridge Zen Center, and getting some initial tastes of its extreme and right-at-hand benefit, and this “compulsion” has become a vocation, and that vocation has now inspired nearly everything I have said or written or recorded or filmed for the last 30 years. So, making this blog was a lame attempt to have some more consistent base from which to conduct nighttime raids on the sandbagged bastions of samsara, conventional thinking, mere religion, social/religious straightjacketing, etc. etc., employing the guns of whatever I have developed through years of practice of his teachings, and that of others.

So, we will see if maintaining this blog has any benefit. Again, as a Zen practitioner, there is great ambivalence about the whole thing, and about nearly every sentence that comes out. I will keep an eye on whether or not maintaining this blog adds more noise or distraction to my own daily practice, or to the lives of friends and students. The first concern here, every day, is to protect enough time in the busy work of leading a small meditation community, to actually be on the cushion at every single sitting, and to attend every single meal (even the breakfasts, though that is personal fasting time, an added training). If I notice any clouds gathering as a result of this blog-communication — either an unrestrained desire to yak-yak-yak post or needing to deal with an unexpected volume of “incoming” reactions or requests — then this idea, too, can be shut down. I hope, in the meantime, not to embarrass (too much) any students or practitioners of Zen, with my crude, unpracticed expressions.

The most important thing is to practice. Since I am a communicative person — sometimes — by nature, it is unavoidable to want to communicate my own impressions of things encountered through the lens of the focused, practicing life. If it might have any benefit for others who also have this shard of the Great Question lodged in their brains, as I do, then But this must never become any substitute for, or distraction from practice. There are already far far too many distracting opportunities, both for my students, unknowns, and for this errant monk. It would be making immeasurable sin to add yet another flashy-object, if there was not some “Dharma” to come of it.

So, I will continue to blog during retreat, and anytime, for the time being. This is being done for the first time, and it really does feel weird. I wanted to share these reasons why, and why it might also not remain.